Fragments of the Reformation: David Gaimster Explains How the English Reformation Is Emerging as a Key Area of Interest in British Archaeology, and How the Discipline Sheds a Unique Light on the Cultural Changes of the Period

By Gaimster, David | History Today, May 2004 | Go to article overview

Fragments of the Reformation: David Gaimster Explains How the English Reformation Is Emerging as a Key Area of Interest in British Archaeology, and How the Discipline Sheds a Unique Light on the Cultural Changes of the Period


Gaimster, David, History Today


TRADITIONALLY, historians of early modern Europe have viewed the political, social and economic turmoil surrounding the 'splintering of the Cross' as largely responsible for the rupture of the medieval order and the foundation of modern society, in giving rise to capitalism, imperialism, individualism and democracy. Yet the extent of the Reformation in England and its impact on the lifestyles, attitudes and beliefs of ordinary people has continued to stimulate heated debate and generate a constant flow of 'groundbreaking' revisions. Recently, the emphasis has shifted towards measuring the reception of and resistance to changes in religious practice through detailed analysis of local records, the publishing industry and literacy levels. But what of the 60-70 per cent of English men and women who could not read the Word of God? How do we quantify the extent and pace of change beyond the catechism class?

Increasingly, archaeological excavation and research are beginning to add texture to our picture of the religious and socio-political landscape of sixteenth-century England. The study of contemporary material culture--surviving architecture, monuments, burials and everyday objects--can allow us to evaluate the spread of evangelism and resistance to the new order beyond the strict confines of the liturgy.

In the past few years archaeologists have set out to demonstrate how the discipline can contribute to the wider Reformation narrative. Their aim has been to measure continuity and change in the landscape, in towns, in churches, in graveyards and in the home, and in a cross-section of society, rich and pool, literate and illiterate.

Protestantism triumphed in sixteenth-century England, initially at least, because it was given a lead by the king. It is impossible to speculate on what would have happened, had it not been for Henry VIII's matrimonial difficulties. Almost certainly there would have been a Protestant party, but there is no guarantee that a Protestant Reformation would have been successful, any more than it succeeded in France, where anti-clericalism was equally rife. Historians such as Eamon Duffy have used wills, church records, court records and other documentary evidence to argue that compliance around the country with the reform movement from the late 1530s was 'an optical illusion'. They contend that little in the realms of ideas and everyday religious practice changed dramatically among ordinary people in the decades surrounding the break with Rome. Indeed, popular support for Protestantism was grudging at best, with loyalty to traditional Catholic liturgy and ritual enduring at all levels of society.

The notion of transition from a world of cultic observance, appealing through the senses, to a religion of non-ritual or even anti-ritual forms set in a desacralised world, is accurate in general terms, yet it is also clear that there were many 'Catholic survivals' within Protestant culture. This suggests that the break with the past was neither as dramatic nor as complete as conventional wisdom dictates. People were also still attached to their bibles, hymn books and catechisms, while developing an evangelical emphasis on the Word of God; and this suggests that Protestants, no less than Catholics, continued to live in a sacralised religious environment. Archaeology--literally as history 'from below'--has the ability to provide new insights into popular responses to the Reformation.

On the accession of Edward VI in 1547, the official programme dedicated to dismantling the entire infrastructure of late medieval devotional religion was almost complete. The monasteries had been dissolved, chantries abolished, the shrines of saints smashed, and pilgrimage statuary destroyed. The destruction of religious imagery was to remain a distinctive feature of the Tudor Reformation, through the reigns of Edward VI (1547-53) and Elizabeth I (1558-1603), and during the phase of Puritan fervour in the seventeenth century. …

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Fragments of the Reformation: David Gaimster Explains How the English Reformation Is Emerging as a Key Area of Interest in British Archaeology, and How the Discipline Sheds a Unique Light on the Cultural Changes of the Period
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